America's Infatuation with Sport Heroes
August 14th 1936, almost a year after the legislation of the Nuremberg Race Laws that set the legal framework for Jewish persecution, nine middle-class boys from the University of Washington sat anxiously in their boat on the Langer See towards the outskirts of Berlin.1 And just meters away, the prized German coxswain and his crew of eight lifted their arms in Hitlergruß to Adolf Hitler, with swastikas stapled to their chests. The two boats took position to compete in one of the most famous Olympic Games––Nazi Germany’s political showcase. Their mere contest against the German regime dealt a saga of true heroism. The men in the American boat were by all standards the underdog. The German crew was looking for their sixth gold medal in the regatta, and Washington’s finest needed to find strength not of their own. They needed to break through to a heightened level of vigor. So when the umpire dropped the flags to begin the race, the boys began to impetuously row, ripping the water amidst the sharp pain they felt in every stoke. They persevered as the water sped underneath. The boys were valiantly fighting to defeat the American opposition, feathering like angels as they harmoniously manipulated their blades. With each tear through the river their boat inched further and further ahead. The finish insight, the men poured their souls into the remaining meters. In a time of six minutes twenty-five and four-tenths seconds, Morris, Day, Adam, White, McMillin, Hunt, Rantz, Hume and the cox, Moch, agonized the leaders of Nazi Germany with a defeat on the world stage in rowing’s most important event.2
The words of the American boat’s designer, George Yeoman Pocock, testify to the Miracle Nine’s experience of the historic battle on the Langer See:
"It’s a great art. It’s the finest art there is. It’s a symphony of motion. And when you’re rowing well, why it’s nearing perfection. And when you near perfection, you’re touching the Divine. It touches the you of yous. Which is your soul."3
We long for stories like this. It is so easy to attach to these moments that radiate victory. Athletic triumph transcends far past an individual or team to the very depths of the spectator’s heart. Pure emotion fills the space between the athletes and the spectators, connecting us to a condition much larger than sport. The competition affects our acuity. Our perception changes according to how the story is told. The greater intensity of the setting and the richer account of the events, the more linked we are to the product of the gala. For example, in order to relay the significance of the win over Germany in the 1936 boat race, the story needed substance that illustrated the might of the Washington boys and their breathtaking bout.4 Henry Grantland Rice, Dean of American Sports Writers and graduate of Vanderbilt in 1901, perfected this strategy and wrote August 2nd 1936 in the Los Angeles Times about the Olympic Games: It was one of the most impressive sights of sport or war. From India’s pale blue turbaned team to Italy’s black shirts, from Mexico to Monaco, from Norway to China and Japan. But through it all it was “Heil, Hitler!” with the Nazi Salute. It was quite evident that the United States and Great Britain were social outcasts, especially the American team...5
Grantland, who once led the Commodores to a Southern Conference championship in baseball before leaving Vanderbilt to write for The Nashville Daily News and later The Nashville Tennessean, had a knack for poetry and skillfully created a setting of good versus evil.6 He attempted to reveal the character of the participants in sport and depicted football pitches as war zones. Akin to his piece about the Olympics, Grantland once published a tale of Notre Dame’s four football players and their triumphant conquest over Army in the New York Herald. He titled this “The Four Horsemen,” alluding to the Apocalypse story in the Book of Revelation.7 He was revered for his authorship, as being one of the first to deposit this type of heroism in sport. His metaphors and imagery connected readers to the intimacy spectators experienced, feeling the same emotions as if they were there. Since then, readers have craved this new journalism, where athletes are commonly staged as heroes. This change marks the pivot to modern sport fandom. Support has developed into something more than rooting for a team or player; it has become an arena to witness the good guys defeat the bad guys. Americans identify with the athletes and ascribe to their stories told throughout their careers. The athletes that prevail through adversity are illustrated as venerated heroes in our culture. Sport has become America’s source to which we look for exemplars of the ethos and credo we covet.
On ESPN’s Page 2, under “Calling all Heroes,” Jackie Robinson is listed as the number one hero in sport history.8American League President Gene Budig said in 1997 regarding the young man who broke Major League Baseball’s color line: “He led America by example. He reminded our people of what was right and he reminded them of what was wrong. I think it can be safely said today that Jackie Robinson made the United States a better nation.” His number 42, worn annually on April 15th and retired by all teams, has trademarked Major League Baseball’s fight against social injustice and their commitment to use the sport as a channel for standing against errors in our country. Through this commemoration and reflection, American baseball fans have treated Jackie Robinson as an example to be followed. His story has further helped define heroism. The manner in which he participated in the sport, both on and off the field, ignited change in America’s racial gridlock. Because of athletes like Jackie Robinson, who have been willing to show noble courage, sport and its media can do much for America’s culture.
And now as an acting agent of society, sport’s concerns shape our conversations. How often have we heard: “I’m not a Cavaliers fan, just a Lebron James fan” or comments like “I want the San Antonio Spurs to win because I respect Gregg Popovich and the dynasty he built with Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, and Manu Ginóbili.” Most people have a sport hero, someone who they look to for motivation, and they want to communicate it. We brand ourselves with an athlete’s name on our back and spend our time in conversation with friends over the performance of favored athletes. They are the fastest, the strongest, and achieve what is impossible for the normal person. They are the best at what they do and it is easy for us to compare the successes; so we talk about them. We create passionate quarrels as to why we believe one should win over the other. We have an inherent itch to find someone in media that we think we are alike or someone of which resembles who we would like to be, and we become infatuated with them––and we call this fandom. And more than that, we choose an antagonist, typically from the rival team of whom we hope to defeat. [Can you actually respect Christian Laettner and still call yourself a North Carolina Tar Heel?]9
We look for an athlete who ascends binding human capability and conquers the enemy. Our sport superstars are our superheroes. David Wallace wrote in The New York Times to explain what we witness as athletes ascend past our known reality to a transhuman state:
The metaphysical explanation is that Roger Federer is one of those rare, preternatural athletes who appear to be exempt, at least in part, from certain physical laws. Good analogues here include Michael Jordan, who could not only jump inhumanly high but actually hang there a beat or two longer than gravity allows, and Muhammad Ali, who really could “float” across the canvas and land two or three jabs in the clock-time required for one ... And Federer is of this type—a type that one could call genius, or mutant, or avatar. He is never hurried or off-balance. The approaching ball hangs, for him, a split-second longer than it ought to. His movements are lithe rather than athletic.10
As fans we cling to these transhuman identities we find in our favorite athletes. We love when our favorite athlete gallantly ascends [conquers] and succeeds [prevails]. In the same way, there have been equally notable men in history that manifest these same transhuman qualities we discover in our athlete-heroes.
Authors of Genesis wrote stories of origin and order, including instruction thereof. However, there was a very inimitable story about a man named Joseph, son of Jacob.11 Joseph had eleven brothers who hated him because he was most loved by his father, being that he was the off spring of the father’s old age. He had been given a robe of many colors [a cloak only worn by kings]. The brothers’ loathing grew because of this, and when Joseph reported his dreams one day––one in which the brothers’ sheaves bowed down to Joseph’s sheaf, and another dream of the sun, moon, and eleven stars [representing the brothers] bowing down to Joseph––the brothers jealously plotted against their brother. The eleven brothers sold Joseph into slavery in hopes that removing the most loved son they could avenge their status with their father. After dipping his robe into goat blood, the brothers appeared before their father and conjured that a fierce animal had devoured the youngest, Joseph.
Despite the brothers’ actions, and the misery to come for Joseph, we see that the Lord found favor with him and remained present in his life. Joseph found success as a servant and eventually dwelled in the house of Potiphar, an Egyptian master. Potiphar witnessed that God was with Joseph, seeing that Joseph had found success in the things he was given, so Potiphar gave Joseph authority over all that he had owned. Joseph was given abounding responsibility, but Joseph lived obediently knowing that God had helped him succeed. For when Potiphar’s wife fell smitten with Joseph and sought pleasure, he ran away so quickly that he left his robe—because adultery against an officer of Egypt was publishable by death. However, the wife felt affronted by Joseph and therefore lied to her husband, using Joseph’s robe as her proof that he had pressed her to infidelity. Potiphar mercifully chose to send Joseph to prison instead, perhaps aware of his wife’s behavior. A lot of time then passed but Joseph remained faithful to the Lord, knowing he had not been forsaken. Here in prison, Joseph was given the opportunity to interpret two dreams for the servants of the Pharaoh, and he did so correctly. So later on, when the dreams also perturbed the Pharaoh, one of the servants remembered Joseph. The Pharaoh dreamt:
18 "Seven cows, plump and attractive, came up out of the Nile and fed in the reed grass. 19 Seven other cows came up after them, poor and very ugly and thin, such as I had never seen in all the land of Egypt. 20 And the thin, ugly cows ate up the first seven plump cows, 21 but when they had eaten them no one would have known that they had eaten them, for they were still as ugly as at the beginning. Then I awoke. 22 I also saw in my dreams seven ears growing on one stalk, full and good. 23 Seven ears, withered, thin, and blighted by the east wind, sprouted after them, 24 and the thin ears swallowed up seven good ears. And I told it to the magicians, but there was no one who could explain it to me."
Joseph found these dreams to represent seven years of harvest and seven years of severe famine. Because of his track record and accuracy, the Pharaoh accepted this interpretation and appointed Joseph to help oversee the preparation. So in Egypt, like Joseph predicted, there were seven years of harvest. Joseph was in a transhuman state, using his talents in ways that were admirable and seemingly impossible to everyone else. For when the seven years of famine came his prophecies were only further fulfilled. He began leading the people of Egypt. “57 Moreover, all the earth came to Egypt to Joseph to buy grain, because the famine was severe over all the earth.” Likewise, Joseph’s brothers had left the land of Canaan in hopes to receive grain from the Pharaoh. Believing their brother had not survived, they were unaware of the man in charge of dispersing the grain. But when arriving to Egypt, Joseph recognized his brothers, and after some time, he revealed himself to them. The brothers feared that they would receive the condemnation and punishment they deserved, but Joseph showed them grace. He provided grain for his family, forgave his brothers, and restored his relationship with his father. Joseph showed an act of love that we all entreat.
The greatest qualities of Joseph that reveal his inimitable transhuman identity must be his forgiveness, restoration, and humility. Because God was with him, he was able to overcome the despondencies he encountered throughout his life. He humbly accepted the life God had given him, working diligently at everything he was given; he was restored to a position of authority and used his talents to restore Egypt and his family from distress; and he forgave his brothers even though they did not deserve it. Joseph is a hero of the Bible, and it is similarly as easy to admire him as the sport heroes of today. Joseph’s success story reveals the example of true laudable character, and his specific transhuman qualities, that orchestrated his conquest, reflect the ethos of our loving God.
Furthermore, Jesus the Son of God has an analogous story to Joseph’s. Jesus lived an upright life; he never missed the mark or strayed from perfection. He underwent our same temptations, felt our same emotions, and lived in our very world; but he lived a life of service to others. Jesus spent his time with the social outcasts and the irreligious. He dedicated his life to loving others in the careful way each individual desired. His friendship transcended past social constructs and people found peace in his presence. However, he was not accepted by Roman or religious leaders because they viewed him as a challenge. He was mocked, beaten, denied, abandoned, and murdered—accused of crimes he never committed. He was crucified on a tree set aside as a Roman instrument that was used for the precision of torture.13 However, he accepted the punishment knowing that his sacrifice would compensate for humanity’s moral failures. He knew that his perfect life and perfect death would pay our debt. So he chose to forgive us. He chose to forgive his persecutors. He chose to forgive the people that deny his love. He chose to forgive like Joseph chose to forgive, even though we do not deserve it. But three days later, the God incarnate rose again 14. Jesus defeated death. Jesus delivered the key to eternity. He came to offer life after death. That through believing in his resurrection, we can be restored to a relationship with the Divine and a life in Heaven. Jesus mended the disconnect between God’s perfection and the imperfection of humanity, saying: “I forgive you,” no matter how many times we mess up.
I believe our infatuation with sport heroes resembles our infatuation and human-need for a relationship with a superior being. Our sport fandom is a glimpse into the deepest desires of the human heart. We want to be connected to the transhuman. Lionel Messi and Michael Jordan have gift s that the ordinary person has been denied; their innate abilities transcend past ordinary laws of physics. Jesus did the same thing. Jesus came and accomplished the impossible, exemplifying perfect morality every step of the way. He came to befriend us, offering a perfected relationship to the transhuman that sport fandom attempts to cultivate. Our humanly desires are satisfied in connection to our loving God and belief in the story of Jesus.
6 For while we were still weak, at the right time, Christ died for the ungodly. 7 For one will scarcely die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die––8 but God shows his love for us that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. 9 Since therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God. 10 For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life. 11 More than that, we rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation.
1 Nuremberg Race Laws, (1935, Sep.). Retrieved from: https://www.ushmm.org/learn/timeline-ofevents/1933-1938/nuremberg-race-laws 2 The XIth Olympic Games Berlin, 1936. Official Report.
2. Published by Wilhelm Limpert. Retrieved from: http://library.la84.org/6oic/OfficialReports/1936/1936v2sum. pdf ----------p1018
3 Brown, D. (2013). The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold At the 1936 Berlin Olympics. New York: Viking.
4 Smith, S. D. (n.d.) Ode to Peace or Prelude to War? Vanderbilt Historical Review. Retrieved from: http:// vanderbilthistoricalreview.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/01/Ode-to-Peace.pdf
5 Rice, G. (1936, Aug 02). Crowd accords nations giving Nazi salute thundering welcome. Los Angeles Times.
6 Traughber, B. (2010). Grantland Rice and early Nashville baseball. Vanderbilt. Retrieved from: http://www.vucommodores.com/sports/m-basebl/spec-rel/041410aaa.html
7 Rice, G. (1924, Oct.). The Four Horsemen. New York Herald Tribune. Retrieved from: http://archives.nd.edu/research/texts/rice.htm
8 Calling All Heroes, ESPN, Page 2. Retrieved from: http:// espn.go.com/page2/s/list/heroes.html
9 30for30. I Hate Christian Laettner. Retrieved from: http://espn.go.com/30for30/fi lm?page=ihatechristianlaettner
10 Wallace, D.F. (2006, Aug.). Federer as Religious Experience. The New York Times. Retrieved from:http://www.nytimes.com/2006/08/20/sports/playmagazine/20federer. html?_r=0
11 Genesis 37-47, English Standard Version.
12 (2016). Unleashing God’s Truth, One Verse at a Time. Grace to You. Retrieved from: https://www.gty.org/resources/pdf/sermons/1281
13 Matthew 27, Mark 15, Luke 23, John 19
14 Matthew 28, Mark 16, Luke 24, John 20